Saturday, December 19, 2015

Finishing up Off Center by Damon Knight: "Second-Class Citizen" & "God's Nose"

Let's finish up Damon Knight's 1965 collection Off Center.  As you may recall, I own the 1973 Award paperback edition, complete with its in-need-of-copyediting back cover.

"Second-Class Citizen" (1963)

This is what I call a switcheroo story.  In the old EC comics I seem to recall there being a surfeit of stories in which a guy would swat a fly and then be killed by a giant fly, or go to a planet to catch aliens for a zoo and instead be captured and put in a zoo.  On TV's "The Twilight Zone" I seem to recall an episode in which a Nazi death camp commander, in a dream, is tortured the way he tortured Jews, and an episode in which a U-boat captain who sank an Allied passenger ship is doomed in Hell to be a passenger on just such a ship as it suffers just such a fate.  These kinds of stories are so common that professional writers must have a name for them, a better one than "switcheroo story."

Anyway, I find these kinds of stories to be too simple, too obvious, and in some cases uncomfortably self righteous or disturbingly eager to appeal to the audience's lust for revenge. And a story in which God or "the Universe" metes out "justice" or achieves revenge lacks the excitement and tension of a story in which a human being does so. If a person seeks revenge, he has to face practical obstacles (maybe the target of his vengeance will elude him, or outfight him) and moral issues (is it ever just to seek revenge? has he chosen the appropriate target for revenge? will innocent bystanders be harmed in the fracas? by seeking revenge is the avenger becoming as evil as his quarry?)  But when God or the Universe is the one seeking vengeance there are none of these interesting issues, because God doesn't make mistakes or fail in His purpose.

"Second-Class Citizen," which first saw light in Worlds of If, is about a scientist who is training dolphins to integrate into human society.  He has taught a dolphin to speak a just barely discernible English, and even built the cetacean a sort of robot body with wheels and pincer arms that the dolphin can manipulate with its flippers.  Bizarrely, he is training the dolphin to act as a lab assistant, making it use its clumsy robot arms to manipulate beakers and test tubes.  (Maybe grad students in this alternate universe have unionized?)

I wonder about the historical significance of this story; there are other SF stories that feature "uplifted" dolphins--could this be the first?  Also, would Theodore Sturgeon consider "Second-Class Citizen" to be one of those "anti-science" science fiction stories he was griping about in "The Wages of Synergy"?

Some tourists visit the lab, and a pretty girl (where would we be without the wisdom of pretty girls?) tells the scientist that it is wrong for him to try to get a dolphin to live a human's life.  Then a world war breaks out, making the surface practically unlivable. The scientist manages to escape to a domed lab on the ocean floor, where he can live out his days alone, but he'll have to catch his own food.  He realizes that--oh! the irony!--now his dolphin assistant will be teaching him how to live as a dolphin, instead of him teaching the dolphin how to live as a human.


"God's Nose" (1964)

This one is less than three pages long, a pun story inspired by Beckett plays.  (Some of my worst New York experiences have been sitting through Off-Off-Broadway plays inspired by Beckett.)  It first appeared in Rogue, along with pictures of Sophia Loren I can't seem to find online anywhere (but check out these) and sexist cartoons by Syd Hoff you can see here.  (Rogue provided employment and exposure to many SF writers, not just Knight.)

A woman (described as a "Zen Catholic") and the narrator sit on the floor of a room with no furniture.  They await her boyfriend.  She theorizes about God's nose: It must be perfectly formed and infinite in size.  Perhaps the stars are things ejected from God's nose when He sneezed?  Then her boyfriend, whom she introduces as Godfrey, shows up, and the narrator notices that Godfrey has a nose much larger than the average. The end.

Zero divine nasal ejecta out of five.


These feel like filler; I'll try not to give them undue weight when considering Knight's career as a whole.    


What's that?  You're curious about what other titles were available in the Award Books science fiction line in 1973?  MPorcius Fiction Blog is at your service!  After the stories in my copy of Off Center (and before the three pages of ads for books on the paranormal) there are two pages of ads for SF paperbacks; these volumes, representing "MIND-SHATTERING SCIENCE FICTION at its very best!" feature genre literature legends Robert Bloch and Robert Silverberg, and a host of other "masters."  Check out the scan below!


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